There’s early and there’s early. The Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections – along with the English mayoral and local elections – aren’t happening until 6 May but, for reasons best known to themselves, Labour reckoned that early March was the ideal time to start its campaign. Judging by the hourlong launch event, they might be pushing their luck to keep people interested for the best part of two months.
The show opened with the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, introducing various videos. First an old black and white clip of a steam train with a shoutout to Harold Wilson – not sure how much name recognition he will get among younger voters – then clips of the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and several other candidates. The Welsh clip started as a tourist promotional film of the coastal path, complete with melancholy piano soundtrack, and ended with an appearance from the first minister, Mark Drakeford.
Rayner tried to sound enthusiastic as she linked the videos, but by the time she had been forced to present the same two postal vote films three or four times each to fill up the dead air, even she had begun to flag somewhat. Her relief when she was allowed to hand over to Keir Starmer, who was giving a live speech from a makeshift studio somewhere in London, was tangible.
“After 11 months of talking on Zoom, I’m looking forward to getting out and meeting people,” Starmer said. Just who the Labour leader was expecting to meet was another matter entirely as campaign rallies don’t really square with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. Unless he is planning to meet the entire country in groups of six come the end of the month.
As expected, Starmer went in hard on the Tories’ pay cut for nurses – he even repeated several of his better lines from the previous day’s prime minister’s questions. I suspect we are going to hear quite a lot about how his mother and sister were both nurses and how his wife works for the NHS in the coming weeks. Though he may need to have a plan B in case Boris Johnson caves in – as many believe he will – and offers nurses an above-inflation pay increase.
The Labour leader also tried to remind everyone who was watching – so probably just a few hundred people then, though considerably more than had tuned into the Tory London mayoral hopeful Shaun Bailey’s dismal event earlier in the day – just how badly Johnson had screwed up in the first nine months of his coronavirus response. But Starmer’s heart didn’t really appear to be fully engaged in his speech. Not that he didn’t believe what he was saying, rather that he knew it was going to be an uphill struggle to keep people focused on the elections now that the vaccine programme was proving unexpectedly successful. Everyone had just about had enough and could do with a break from politics.
Nor did the questions from the media prove particularly revealing. Other than to highlight that Starmer is just as accomplished at not providing answers when the situation suits him. So we got nothing on the ongoing Harry and Meghan row – William has declared that, on reflection, the royal family isn’t racist, so that’s all sorted then – or on whether he would join nurses on a picket line if they went on strike. Starmer was equally cagey about what would constitute a fair pay rise, saying only that the 2.1% that had been previously agreed and budgeted for would be a good starting point.
“And the final question is from Peter at the Express and Star,” the Labour leader said. Except there was no sign of Peter, who had vanished from his screen. Presumably because he had realised there was little prospect of getting any kind of meaningful response. Starmer looked as relieved as the rest of us felt. Perhaps it was slowly dawning on him that two months of campaigning might just be at least a month too much.
Back in the Commons, the main focus of attention was on the Speaker. Fair to say that opposition MPs have been disappointed in Lindsay Hoyle’s indulgence of Johnson over the past year or so, and his reluctance to hold the prime minister to account over his false accusations that Labour had voted against the nurses’ pay rise after the previous day’s PMQs was apparently just the latest sign of weakness. But overnight Hoyle appeared to have had a change of heart as, just before business questions, he made a statement saying ministers should come to the Commons to apologise if they have misled the house.
Not that there seems much chance of that happening as Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s press secretary, was already in the process of embarrassing herself by trying to claim that Johnson had not been referring to the bill that everyone who had heard him had assumed he was. Black was white. It was both absurd and pointless. Though no one should be too surprised by Johnson’s refusal to apologise. He’s never taken any responsibility for his actions, so why break the habit of a lifetime?